A bet on a pricey project
By Jessica Fargen Walsh
McLEAN — Last fall on the Schmit family farm in McLean, $380,000 worth of equipment rumbled across parts of their 4,000 acres of corn and soybeans injecting liquids at high pressure into the ground.
When the liquids — a mix of anhydrous ammonia, phosphate, sulfur and sometimes potash — meet in the ground they crystalize, increasing the likelihood that the nitrogen fertilizer won’t migrate. It’s part of a pilot project aimed at increasing yields while using less fertilizer.
“Basically we are making fertilizer as we go across the field,” said 55-year-old John Schmit, who farms along with his brother and three other relatives.
Much of their land is irrigated.
Irrigated corn and soybean fields are the biggest contributor to nitrate contamination in Nebraska’s groundwater — the source of drinking water for about 85% of the state. Overapplication of nitrogen through the years, starting in the 1960s and 1970s, caused nitrogen to sink into the ground and run off into streams and creeks, eventually ending up in the state’s drinking water supply.
This pilot project at the Schmit farm is in its second year and aims to keep nitrogen in the soil, where corn and soybean plants can use it. It’s one of many water quality projects around the state, often done in coordination with a local Natural Resources District, university research studies or extension programs, with the goal of finding ways to reduce nitrogen contamination.
“We are hoping to maintain or increase yields with less fertilizer and less cost over time,” said John’s brother, 61-year-old Dan Schmit.
Dan Schmit, a 61-year-old farmer in McLean, is hoping the $380,00 he and his relatives invested in a new fertilizer equipment will one day reduce the amount of nitrogen fertilizer they need. They applied fall fertilizer in 2019 even though it is prohibited in the Lower Elkhorn NRD. The equipment is part of a pilot project that exempts them from some regulations.
The Schmit farm is in the Lower Elkhorn Natural Resources District, which like all NRDs, is a local regulatory and taxing body that regulates irrigation and fertilizer use.
The Lower Elkhorn NRD prohibits farmers from applying fertilizer from Oct. 15 to March 15. Portions of the Lower Elkhorn NRD, including parts of the Schmits’ farm, are in the Bazile Groundwater Management Area, a hotspot for nitrate contamination in Nebraska.
They are exempt from NRD regulations put in place in 2018 that limit farmers to 80 pounds of fertilizer per application and prohibit fertilizer application between Oct. 15 and March 15. They are exempt so they experiment with new technology that uses less fertilizer than conventional methods without affecting yields.
Nitrate levels in the water from wells on their farm range from 2 parts per million to 30 parts per million, Dan Schmit said. The federal drinking water standard for nitrate is 10 parts per million.
Dan Schmit said they will need at least 10 years to see if their pilot project works.
“We are trying to prove that it’s viable so that we can apply our nutrients all at one time in the fall and not have to worry about it leaching,” said Dan Schmit. “We want to prove this can work. In four years, if the wells don’t change, they’ll put more regs on this. This problem is a 50 or 100-year problem. For sure you can’t fix it in four years.”
Dan Schmit shows some of the corn he took to an ethanol processing plant. Schmit, his brother and three relatives farm in McLean tried a new fertilizing technique this fall.
Like many farmers, Dan and John Schmit point to excessive fertilizer use starting in the early 1970s as the culprit for today’s nitrate contamination problems.
“I think it was just you couldn’t put enough on,” Dan Schmit said while sitting at his kitchen table during an interview in summer 2019. "That’s not the case today. Most of us are fighting every year to trim our costs.”
Added John Schmit, “Fertilizer is one of the most expensive inputs. It’s logical that’s the first place you’d try and cut expenses when commodity prices are as low as they are.”
The Schmits are already applying less fertilizer and irrigating less. They planted cover crops on about 800 acres, a practice that promotes soil health.
Jim Schepers, a retired UNL professor who has advised the Schmits on their project, said the equipment they are using, made by a company called Exactrix, is promising because it combines the fertilizer chemicals in the ground.
“If you’d like to combine these chemicals together above ground, you are going to end up with a big mess,” Schepers said. “So what you’d like to do is you don’t mix those until you get them in the soil, you let the soil act as the insulation of sorts to buffer all these reactions.”
He said the Schmits are trying to strike a balance between economics and environment.
“They are certainly concerned about nitrate contamination, but at the same time they’d like to be able to still apply fall anhydrous ammonia for economic and time concerns and a whole bunch of reasons,” he said.
The Schmits feel farmers face too many regulations and question the effectiveness of the existing ones.
“The regs they are putting on now are going to impact the economic viability of the people that are farming out here,” John Schmit said. “I don’t really think that the plan they have in place is going to affect the groundwater at all.”
Mike Sousek, the manager of the Lower Elkhorn NRD in Norfolk, said the NRD continues to educate farmers on nitrate and irrigation management, but it has been difficult to get buy-in from all farmers because there is skepticism about the science behind regulations.
“It’s a huge challenge,” Sousek said. “You are battling human nature really.”
John Schimt said he is in favor of the pilot project mostly for economic reasons. But, he also believes it’s best for the future.
“Something grandfather said years and years ago, we don’t own this land. We are just the stewards of it while we are here and our responsibility is to leave it better than we found it,” John Schmit said. “Nobody wants their family or kids to have contaminated water.”
Added Dan Schmit, “We want our grandkids to live here and be successful just the way we’ve been and have a safe environment to do that in. I don’t know what the answer is, I’m struggling with that.”
John Schmit, 55, his brother and three other relatives farm about 4,000 acres in McLean in northeast Nebraska.
THE BAZILE GROUNDWATER MANAGEMENT AREA AIMS
TO BE A MODEL FOR REST OF THE STATE
The Schmit farm is in the Bazile Groundwater Management Area, which encompasses 756 square miles and 21 communities in northeast Nebraska.
The Bazile Ground Water Management Area is ground zero for the latest attempt by Natural Resources District managers, university researchers and scientists and extension educators to increase awareness and education about nitrate contamination — focusing mostly on farmers.
In the mid-80s, Nebraska NRDs started creating groundwater management plans to deal with rising nitrate levels in the groundwater. The Bazile area includes four NRDs.
The regulations in the Bazile are tiered based on contamination levels and vary by NRD. Some regulations include mandatory cover crops, irrigation scheduling, limits on spring fertilizer applications and nitrate testing reporting requirements.
Recently, the university has stepped up efforts to figure out what’s going on there and plans to use Bazile as a test case to apply best management practices.
Jeremy Milander, an extension educator, was recently hired to focus on increasing education about nitrate contamination and working with farmers to implement best management practices in the Bazile. The area is well-positioned for research, he said.
“They’ve got a perfect storm in a way of conditions for nitrate leaching,” Milander said. “They’ve got shallow water tables and a lot of sandy soils that the water takes the nitrates down through pretty fast. There’s also a lot of irrigated corn production there. Those three things make it more of an issue there than in other places.”
He said his goals are to get farmers to adopt better fertilizer and irrigation management practices.
“It’s more community-driven and farmer-driven. We are trying to facilitate that,” he said. “One thing we are trying to do is we are trying to facilitate some community discussions and discussions amongst them and see what their ideas are.”
Crystal Powers, a research and extension communications specialist who works at the UNL Water Center, said the Bazile is one of the most researched parts of the state when it comes to nitrate contamination.
"There have been millions of dollars invested in that region ... and now they are moving into specifically what do we do about it," she said.
She said the hope is that the successes in Bazile can be replicated in other NRDs across the state.
“The goal in Bazile is really getting everybody working together and applying all the best ideas we have in social science, economics, that whole multi-disciplinary piece at the same time,” Powers said.
For more information on the Bazile Groundwater Management Area, click here.
Corn and soybeans on Ron Makovicka's farm in York. Makovicka is growing different test varieties of seeds.